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Serving up graduates

Harper Adams - food science courses

Ralph Early, formerly Professor of Food Industry and Head of the Food Department at Harper Adams University, describes the rapid development of food courses at Harper Adams and the ethos behind course design.

Introduction

Ask any food business leader to list the key challenges they face and it is likely that difficulties in recruiting qualified staff will be somewhere near the top. Staff shortages, particularly food scientists, technologists and engineers, are a perennial problem which can threaten business sustainability. Today’s modern food marketplace is dominated by pre-prepared, ready-to-eat and convenience foods, which are changing food culture. In many respects the food industry has distanced people as consumers from the nature and sources of food and the idea of food as a career. Many young people today simply do not gain first-hand experience of food as a raw material to convert into meals by cooking in the home, as did previous generations. Hence, they do not develop curiosity about where food comes from or the different kinds of food business that produce the diversity of products available.

The food industry’s qualified staff shortages represent an opportunity for universities. Within Britain’s university sector, only a small number of the 130 institutions deliver undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in food science, technology and engineering to prepare graduates for the food industry. However, attracting UK school leavers onto food courses is still challenging and such courses often prove more attractive to overseas students.

In many respects the food industry has distanced people as consumers from the nature and sources of food and the idea of food as a career.

University of the food chain

In many ways Harper Adams University[1], located in rural Shropshire, may be thought of as Britain’s university of the food chain. In contrast to many universities offering food courses, it is principally an agricultural university. Its campus is located at the centre of a 635 hectare working farm, which allows students direct access to farm experience and insight into the methods involved in modern agricultural food production. Central to the institution’s mission is the education of students in the science, technology and management topics involved in the production of agricultural foodstuffs, their transformation through processing and manufacture, and their marketing and retailing as food products.

The university began life in 1901 as a purpose built agricultural college[2] and has grown very substantially since then. It was awarded university status in 2012, making it Shropshire’s very own university. Today the student body numbers some 3,000 undergraduates pursuing four-year degree courses, while around 200 students take taught masters courses each year and 50 to 60 PhD students are registered for postgraduate research at any time. Harper Adams has both taught and research degree awarding powers and its academic awards relate principally to the disciplines of agricultural engineering, crop and animal sciences, environmental sciences, entomology, food technology, agri-food marketing and veterinary nursing. Much of its focus is on the provision of qualified staff for the land-based food industries. Apart from education, the university has consistently been dedicated to research and innovation in relation to agriculture and food production, as illustrated by establishing its position as a world-leader in precision agriculture. Indeed, the university’s ‘Hands Free Hectare’ project[3] demonstrates this perfectly, with two crop production cycles now completed in which the growing and harvesting of barley for beer production was achieved by means of autonomous agricultural vehicles, entirely without direct intervention by human beings on the land itself.

Taking the plunge

Harper Adams has a long history of teaching agriculture-related courses, however, the addition of food technology courses to the curriculum is a relatively recent occurrence. In 1996, the university took the step of appointing its first food science lecturer with the brief to develop and deliver food science and technology modules to undergraduate students studying mainly agriculture and agri-food business courses.

Initially a hand-full of optional food technology modules were inserted into the curriculum to provide an understanding of the fate of agricultural produce beyond the farm gate and of the principal sectors of the food industry. The modules proved to be popular, not least because students realised that a grounding in food technology could open doors to promising careers in the industry.

Harper Adams University has exceptionally strong links with the agri-food industry. As the number of undergraduate students opting to take food technology modules increased so the number of graduates being appointed into technical roles in food businesses also increased. This indicated that purpose designed food courses were meeting the needs of the food sector. Additionally, routine contact with food industry managers, often in companies providing industrial placements, reinforced the need to develop graduate food courses. These factors led to the decision to expand the university’s curriculum and in 1998 the MSc course in Food Marketing and Quality Management was launched. The course was designed specifically to provide a conversion route for graduates wanting to retrain for careers in the food industry and it ran for almost a decade. Importantly, it provided experience in the delivery of courses designed expressly to serve the graduate staffing needs of food businesses.

Students at Belton Farm

The food course portfolio

Experience gained through delivery of the MSc food programme led to the decision in the early-2000s to offer a purpose designed undergraduate degree programme in food technology. Marketing research provided the necessary intelligence which informed curriculum development and subject balance, i.e. the weighting between science and technology modules and marketing and business management modules. A valued comment made by many food business managers concerned the need for multi-skilled graduates who could ‘hit the ground running’. Harper Adams University’s model for undergraduate courses has always included year three of its four-year degrees as an industrial placement year. This was implemented in the new food course structures, thereby proving instrumental to the preparation of students for the real-world.

While the original plan was to develop one course, in the event two food technology courses were launched in 2005, following completion of the standard processes of obtaining course development approval and validation from the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). Student recruitment into the BSc (Honours) Food and Consumer Studies and BSc (Honours) Food Quality and Business Management courses was initially modest but increased fairly rapidly to sustainable numbers.

By 2016 the time was right to revise the original courses and make additions to the portfolio. Today Harper Adams offers four food-related BSc (Honours) courses[4]: Food and Consumer Studies, Food Manufacture with Marketing, Food Technology and Product Development and Food Technology with Nutrition. Each course reflects Harper Adams’s continuing commitment to supporting the graduate needs of the food industry.

In addition to the development of the undergraduate portfolio, the MSc in Food Marketing and Quality Management has been replaced by the MSc in Food Business Operations Management and its linked academic awards at PgC (Post-graduate Certificate) and PgD (Post-graduate Diploma) levels.

Course design considerations

The development of a food technology degree course involves the synthesis of natural science disciplines with selected management sciences to equip graduates to work in diverse roles in the food industry. Apart from ensuring that a food technology course has the right subject mix, the importance of enabling students to develop practical skills cannot be understated. Educationalists refer to Kolb’s experiential learning theory (Figure 1)[5,6,7] as a reference point for academic course development and his Learning Cycle proposes that Concrete Experience (doing and gaining experience) is necessary to allow Reflective Observation (the review of experience), which leads to Abstract Conceptualisation (stimulating modification of an existing abstract concept or the creation of a new idea, i.e. learning from experience) followed by Active Experimentation (applying ideas and knowledge gained in order to increase experience). As the name suggests, Kolb’s Cycle is an iterative process which reinforces experience with theory and theory with practise. In this respect, hands-on practice has to be an essential part of the development of graduate food technologists and, importantly, this must be recognised in curriculum design.

Because the development of Harper Adams’s food technology courses was undertaken with guidance from and in close cooperation with representatives of the food industry, the module mix was fine-tuned to deliver graduates with the range of knowledge and applied skills that employers require. Additionally, emphasis was given to development of the core skills that employers identify as essential attributes of employable graduates: communication, numeracy, information and communication technology (ITC), problem solving and working with others.

These factors were already well understood as critical considerations, given Harper Adams’s century-long experience in education. An apparent limitation during the course development phase was, however, the lack of practical food technology facilities at the campus.

Figure 1 Kolb’s learning circle

Food technology facilities

Food microbiology presented no problem as the campus is well equipped with a range of laboratories, including microbiology facilities. The delivery of food technology practical classes covering for instance, food processing, preservation and packaging, was achieved through access to food processing halls in a partner college. Funding (around £4m) for the conversion of a former farm building at the centre of the University’s campus into a food technology unit was obtained from Advantage West Midlands’s (AWM – the regional development agency) in 2007. This resulted in the creation of the West Midlands Regional Food Academy (RFA), the function of which was to educate graduate food technologists and to serve the region’s food industry – mainly SME (small and medium sized enterprise) food businesses – by the provision of training and business development services for a period of 10 years. The facility was completed in 2009 and includes a general food processing hall, a cheese room, a development kitchen, an instrument room, a sensory evaluation unit and a food-grade lecture theatre adjoining an exhibition hall. The RFA was officially opened by the Princess Royal, Harper Adams’s Chancellor, in December 2009 and the building subsequently won the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ regional prizes for the best building conversion and also the best project.

Recent developments

Harper Adams’s undergraduate and postgraduate food technology courses are now well established, with lecturers drawn from the university’s five agriculturally orientated academic departments.

In 2011, 20 food lecturers, technicians and administrators were brought together in a single academic unit: the Department of Food Science and Agri-Food Supply Chain Management. In keeping with the well-established ethos of serving the needs of the food industry, the new department created a set of postgraduate courses designed expressly for the development of supervisory and management staff in the red meat, poultry and dairy sectors, with some students progressing to the award of MSc in Meat Business Management.

These courses and consequent interactions with the meat, poultry and dairy sectors led to the development of the degree apprenticeship courses[8], BSc (Honours) Food Industry Technical Professional and BEng (Honours) Food and Drink Advanced Engineer, launched in 2018.

Alongside further development of courses, the food department worked with Dairy Crest in the conception of its Innovation Centre now located at Harper Adams’s campus and officially opened in 2016. An industry-academia collaboration has developed, which brings dairy technologists into regular contact with academic staff and students in a variety of ways, including through guest lectures, project work and industrial placements. Such is the innovative nature of the project that in 2016 it won the Times Higher Education Award for the Most Innovative Contribution to Business- University Collaboration.

These recent developments reflect the progressive nature of Harper Adams University’s food department and its commitment to working with the food industry. Further illustration was provided in 2017 with the launch of an annual Food Science Summer School, in partnership with the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD).

Harper Adams is one of five universities offering such summer schools for the benefit of year 12 pupils throughout the UK, so providing the opportunity to gain insight into careers in food and the food industry. The Food Science Summer School is designed to stimulate curiosity about food and, as one of a hand-full of British universities offering food technology and food engineering courses, Harper Adams University is well placed to provide the academic stepping-stone to food careers.

Harper Adams’s undergraduate and postgraduate food technology courses are now well established, with lecturers drawn from the university’s five agriculturally orientated academic departments.

Conclusion

As a comparative new-comer to the education of food technology graduates, Harper Adams University has made rapid progress in a relatively short time. Its success is in large part due to the quality and dedication of its teaching staff and the support they receive from the university as a whole.

However, by far the most important ingredient in Harper Adams’s work to prepare graduates for food industry careers is the food industry itself and particularly the many food businesses that actively support the university in so many ways, helping to produce the food technologists and engineers the industry so clearly needs.

Ralph Early

Formerly Professor of Food Industry and head of the Food Department at Harper Adams, retired in December 2018 after 23 years at the university working to prepare graduates for careers in the food industry. Before transferring to academia in 1993 he spent 18 years in the food industry, including positions as Quality Standards Manager and Head of Industrial Products Development with Dairy Crest.

Email ralph@theethicalfoodie.co.uk

Twitter @FoodEthicist

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